Thursday, 16 January 1986

Is Democracy A Universal Value? (2008)

POSC003 Term Paper

This paper seeks to address whether the value of democracy as an ideology is a universal one. This paper first chronicles the proliferation of democracy as a western value through the mechanism of globalisation. It then argues for the universality of the value of democracy by zooming in on the applicability of the foundations of the temple of democracy, and then against it when we consider the impact of the advent of democracy. This paper then argues that democracy may not be all that universal a value.

Before we begin, it is important to define what a universal value is. It can be said that something is of universal value when it has the same value for a great number of people. This could mean two importantly different things. First, something could have universal value when everybody holds it in common in many places and situations and at almost all times, whether consciously and explicitly or as expressed in their behaviour (Jahanbegloo, 1992). Second, something could have universal value when all people have reason to believe it has value. Amartya Sen (1999) interprets it this way, pointing out that when Mahatma Gandhi argued that non-violence is a universal value, he was arguing that all people have reason to value non-violence, not that all people currently value non-violence. For the purpose of this paper’s discussion, we will define that something is of universal value if it is popularly deemed to be of worth in the minds of its practitioners, has a tendency to occur and exhibits positive returns when utilised or practiced.

Mancur Olson’s Dictatorship, Democracy and Development (1993) brought to light the potential economic prosperity that democracy brings about. When John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, it paved the way towards American democracy. The opening of the Declaration of Independence states as follows: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” President Abraham Lincoln succinctly explained the central importance of the Declaration to American history in his Gettysburg address of 1863: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." The ideas expressed are generally considered the foundations of American democracy. Under democratic rule, America’s economy flourished.

While democracy enhances growth of emerging economies as the favourable effects on economic growth include maintenance of the rule of law, free markets, small government consumption and high human capital (Barro, 1996), it is also hard to deny that globalisation - in the sentiment of the 'Americanisation of the world' - is a huge mover of democracy. Between 1975 and 2002, there was a quadrupling in the number of democratic countries. Over the same period, global trade as a share of GDP rose from 7.7 to 19.5 per cent. The share of countries open to international capital flows, as measured by the International Monetary Fund, rose from 25 to 38 per cent. The idea that globalisation promotes the diffusion of democratic ideas dates back to Kant (1795). Authors such as Schumpeter (1950), Lipset (1959) and Hayek (1960) have argued that free trade and capital flows, by enhancing the efficiency of resource allocation, raise incomes and lead to the economic development that in turn fosters demands for democracy (Eichengreen & Leblang, 2006).

Essentially, the affluence, technological development and economic development synonymous with American culture, with the onset of globalisation in today's modern world, results in a widespread proliferation of democratic values. Under the impact of globalization, public institutions and societies across the world are becoming increasingly detraditionalised. With the onset of American values, cultural values of non-western societies then become eroded. Additionally, attempts to democratize Islamic countries have proven futile. It then becomes pertinent to question if the values of democracy are all that universally acceptable.

We can attempt to begin answering this by first examining the pillars of the temple of democracy and their degrees of universality. In particular, the pillar of economic well-being can be safely qualified to be of a worthy aspiration for any society that seeks development and prosperity, as it is hard to envisage anybody who wishes to be caught in the throes of economic instability and uncertainty. The pillar of rights and liberties is also of considerable importance and value. In Susan Moller Okin’s Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? (1999), it is noteworthy that women affected by polygamy regard it as an inescapable and barely tolerable institution in their African countries of origin, and an unbearable imposition in the French context. This is one example out of many others that demonstrates that, traditionally, people whose personal freedoms are marginalized by their own cultures conform only reluctantly and do aspire towards the emancipation of individual rights and liberties. The pillar of popular sovereignty is perhaps less universal as it comes about from the attainment of rights and liberties, as citizens may then wish to exercise their right to have a say in the governing of the state, especially minority groups. But its basis of rights and liberties is still of worthy value and hence popular sovereignty can still be considered a derivative function of worthy value itself. As these foundational pillars have universal worth, it percolates into the apparent universality of democratic values, especially those of freedom, equality, trust, equity, respect, tolerance compromise and inclusion.

On a macro level, especially in terms of the perpetuation of peace and stability, democracy as a political ideology also garners weight. The democratic peace theory holds that conflicts and wars are rare between democracies, and that systematic violence is in general less common within democracies, as there is empirical evidence of the relationship between democracy and peace. As compared to other forms of rule, such as that of communism, anarchy, dictatorship or autocracy, democracy has put itself in very promising light despite being a comparatively recent global phenomenon.

Thus far, it is apparent that democracy is quite a desirable ideal because we are aware of the stability and development it can bring about, as well as the inherent goodness that undergirds it. However, once we consider the impact and consequences of the application of democracy, the argument that the value of democracy is universal becomes contentious.

One consideration is in the case of the necessity of ‘prerequisites’ for democracy to be successful. Civic culture as a prerequisite can be traced back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1840), where it was thought that the reasons why democracy worked in America was due to the eagerness of the Americans to take part in their government as well as the role of religion. In a more recent literature, Almond and Verba argued in The Civic Culture (1963) that a political culture, with a mixture of both participative and deferential components, would have a more suitable climate for democracy as compared to solely participative or subject-oriented cultures. Thirdly, in Making Democracy Work: Civic Tradition in Modern Italy (1993), Putnam et al. asserts that a civic culture founded upon a reciprocity of mutual trust and cooperation amongst its citizens makes democracy work. Another prerequisite is a developed and stable socioeconomic climate. According to the logic of Human Development Theory, socioeconomic development allows more resources at the disposal of individuals and people become more educated and demand more liberty. This in turn leads to the cultivation of emancipative values and subsequently the demand for democratization (Welzel, Inglehart & Klingemann, 2003). Arend Lijphart’s Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms & Performance in Thirty-six Countries (1999) further contends that institutional structure is another vital prerequisite for the political stability of democracy.

These can be highlighted in the example of Iraq, where the efforts to build a democratically-oriented political elite in post-Saddam Iraq has proven arduous due to the lack of prerequisites. Although there are respected and capable leaders from Iraq’s diverse communities who are committed to a democratic future, they have had difficulty surmounting their divisions and making compromises. Moreover, the “disadvantaged” in Iraq includes many people who have suffered discrimination or economic deprivation both under Saddam Hussein and in the aftermath of his departure. It is evident that support for democracy among the urban and rural poor is very weak. Many impoverished and poorly educated people have flocked to the cause of authority figures who offer handouts and the psychological rewards of combating the western occupiers as well as domestic enemies. Without a radical improvement in the economy, it is not likely that the members of Iraq’s economic underclass will move towards democracy, unless they are led there by leaders they respect (Sodaro, 2004).

This need for prerequisites before a democracy can be successful evidently argues that democracy is not such a universal value, as the socioeconomic and political climate of a country needs to be specifically ‘tweaked’ before democracy can be applicable and accepted by its people. This can be further demonstrated when we take into account that there are a considerable number of variants of direct democracy, namely social democracy, representative democracy, parliamentary democracy and a host of other less common forms of democracy, such as participatory democracy, anticipatory democracy and deliberative democracy. People differ over the minimum levels or standards of popular sovereignty, civil rights and liberties, and economic well-being for a desirably functioning democracy. Inevitably, what some people may regard as maximum forms of democracy may be regarded by others as minimal forms of democracy (Sodaro, 2004). Clearly, what works for one country might not work for another. States ‘borrow’ democratic ideals to varying degrees to suit their own political needs, and some of these states are merely carrying out their own undemocratic political agendas under the guise of democracy, such as Malaysia. Robert Dahl’s How Democratic is the American Constitution? (2001) also states that America faced problems engaging in direct democracy and had to resort to a representative democracy instead. This subjectivity also undermines the universality of democracy.

In addition, the gains from democracy thus far have been judged largely on material and individual grounds. Who's to say that the other things we have compromised by advocating democracy are less important? Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community addresses the declining social capital within democracies, as compared to the high levels of social capital in traditional non-western societies. Since 1950, America’s social capital has been in decline as the individualistic nature of democracy undermines active civil engagement. Democratic ideals are predominantly western concepts. With the proliferation of democracy throughout the world, western values pertaining to an egalitarian society, personal freedom and liberty, etc. then become pervasive. Although this brings about economic growth, with higher education and a greater emphasis on the self, this leads to an erosion of traditional values, especially those of the family and community. People become more self-aware and prioritise a sense of need for self-actualisation and post-modern wants above traditional institutions, such as marriage (Saardchom & Lemaire, 2005). There are also many whose traditional and cultural livelihoods are being threatened by the increasingly dominant trend of democracy globally. Anthony Giddens’ Runaway World highlights the disorder and instability that democratization in an increasingly globalised modern world brings. In essence, many societies are overhauling what were once perceived as their universal values in place of the new value of democracy in this process of detraditionalisation. Democracy as a universal value becomes questionable once more.

From the discussion of arguments for and against democracy so far, it can be seen that democratic values have inherent goodness and its successful application can bring about universally desirable circumstances of peace, stability and development. However, it is not always readily applicable. The need for prerequisites highlights the fact that many societies do not inherently tend towards a culture that accepts the practice of democracy. And when we consider direct democracy in its most ideal sense, hardly any country fully adopts its full-fledged and pure state, implementing other varieties of democracy instead which shows that the essence of democracy is not fundamentally universal in practice. Lastly, the onset of democracy erodes non-western cultures and values. No one is in a position to truly assert whether personal rights and liberties are more important than a spirit of community. It must, however, be noted that this paper is not trying to say that we should not strive towards democratic ideals. In modifying Amartya Sen’s argument, a country does not have to be deemed fit for democracy; rather, it can become fit through democracy. Fundamentally, this paper asserts that, based on the definition of ‘universal value’ as proposed in the introduction, the arguments discussed have shown that the value of democracy falls short of being universal.


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